Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad LoveStory is a dystopian novel set in a near Future New York City. Within this world the economic heyday of the United States is well past, and fairly well into the novel there are elements of an apocalypse in progress.
Gary Shteyngart is an American writer born in Lenningrad, USSR. Apparently much of his work is of a satirical nature.
Certainly this novel is satire. Bitingly humorous. The books beginning rant starts with our hero, a somewhat Woody Allen-like, Lenny Abramov , deciding that he is never going to die. From his first journal entry:
Don’t let them tell you life’s a journey. A journey is when you end up somewhere. When I take the number 6 train to see my social worker, that’s a journey. When I bet the pilot of this rickety UnitedContinentalDeltamerican plane currently trembling its way across the Atlantic to turn around and head straight back to Rome and into Eunice Parks fickle arms, that’s a journey.
But wait there’s more, isn’t there? There’s our legacy. We don’t die because our progeny lives on! The ritual passing of the DNA, Mam’s corkscrew curls, his granddaddy’s lower lip,” ah buh-lieve thuh chil’ren ah our future”, I’m quoting here from ‘The Greatest Love of All,’ by 1980s pop Diva Whitney Houston, track nine of her eponymous first LP.
Utter nonsense. The children are our future only in the most narrow, transitive sense. They are our future until they too perish. The song’s next line, “Teach them well and let them lead the way." encourages an adult’s relinquishing of selfhood in favor of future generations. The phrase “ I live for my kids” for example, is tantamount to admitting that one will be dead shortly and that one’s life, for all practical purposes, is already over. “I’m gradually dying for my kids” would be more accurate.
All pretty much normal stuff within this novel. Variously observant, funny, poignant….with a tendency to push the point a little longer (the rant has a ways further to go) than needed.
The novel is more dystopian, than apocalyptic. The difference being that a dystopian setting is steady state misery, rather than a situation of change. Lenny is working for a company that sells life extending treatments. The main managers of the company are fit vibrant, crazy, youthful 70 year olds. One of the benefits for the favored employees –and they all do want to be so favored – is receiving these treatments themselves. So it has a science fiction element.
But it is not about science fiction. This is satire. So the story plays more like today's office politics, with smooth skin replacing the corner office as the status symbol.
It is a world were retail sales jobs are considered primo opportunities. Lenny’s beautiful girlfriend uses connections to get a job at women’s boutique. Everyone wears the equivalent of an I-pad around there neck which broadcasts their connectivity and relative rating to those within their area: Facebook with a bite.
The country has gone totalitarian –libertarian, with its spokes-mascot being Jeffrey the Otter – a literal minded AI (alternate intelligence) interrogator. Early on Lenny is registering at the U.S. Embassy in Rome. A knowledgeable friend had warned him that if he you spend over 250 days abroad and did not register for the “Welcome Back Pa’dner,” United States Citizen Re-Entry Program, you would be arrested for sedition at the Airport gate, and sent to a “secure screening facility.” Lenny is interviewed by the otter-AI:
“Hi there, pa’dner!” he said, his electronic voice dripping with adorable carnivalesque. “My name is Jeffrey Otter and I bet we’re going to be friends!”
He is a menacing little otter.
For those who cannot find a job in retail or any job at all, there is the catch all status of LNWI (Low Net Worth Individual). As in our society today, but more pronounced here, the dropping out of the system has costs.
TEASER ALERT (skip to the fourth paragraph from bottom if you don't want to know about any later portions of the book. It is too complex of a book to completely give away, but a few important little nuggets are revealed).
At a certain point in the novel, the apocalypse in progress sets in. As we are in our Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP)/Solar flare feature review series, it is not much a leap to know that an EMP burst is part of the scenario. In this case it is of the non-nuclear variety.
Oddly enough, some of the run-up to our collapse is an Occupy-like protest at Tompkins Square Park, one of the contested sites during the recent Occupy Wall Street protests.
Since the Unites States is to some degree already economically collapsed at the start of the novel, the collapse is a bit uneven. As the collapse accelerates, Lenny’s bosses warn him to get into the city (New York City) and stay there. The logic may seem odd, but in a future collapse, where there may be bystanders who want to some of the leftover parts, only the useful parts will be spared. New York is still has a weak pulse. It gets aid. Indianapolis, IN, or Raleigh, NC, maybe not so much.
Of course this is satire so some of the effects of the electronic storm are a little different than your normal apocalypse-in-progress fare.
When the dust settles a little, he goes to his bank branch.
My bank account was still big enough to warrant a special teller, an old Greek woman imported from a ransacked Astoria branch, who laid it all out for me. Everything I owned that had been yuan-pegged was relatively intact, but my AmericanMorning portfolio – LandOLakes, AlliedWasteCVS, and former conglomeration of cement, steel, and services that had once formed an advanced economy-no longer existed. Four-hundred thousand yuan, two year of self-denial and bad tipping at restaurants, all gone… From the standpoint of survival, the new gold standard for all Americans, I was doing just fine…. “You’re the richest man in Chinatown, “ the teller snorted. “Go home to your family.”
People of course cannot connect to the internet. They are bored. Faced with only “walls, and thoughts and faces” many commit suicide.
I am only scratching the surface. But I will end here.
Did I enjoy the novel? Enjoy may be the wrong word. To say that there is a fair amount of symbolism would be understating the case. It is satire. It is all symbolism. But it is pretty good satire. It would be better to say that I found it worthwhile, rather than enjoyable. I suspect that if I took the time to read it again, I would catch more of the allusions, and asides. There are enough references to post-apocalyptic literature and movies of the past, to know that the author understands the tropes.
We have our descriptive (versus qualitative) ratings. Realism and readability rated from 1 to 7: with 7 being high.
Realism is difficult. It is satire. It is not intending realism. At the same time, in its own very satirical way it does an excellent job of capturing the zero sum game that is becoming a reality for many Americans' lives. Looking forward, it does a fairly good job of giving a flavor of what it might be like to live in a has-been country where only a fractional amount activity is of much relevance to the rest of the world, where our money is nearly worthless, and nobody is much interested in lending us more. The rest of the world has bigger fish to fry. Satire and AI Otters are not real: Despair is. If the Otter sets you at the bottom, the tedium of despair elevates you to 3.
Readability? Lots of symbolism, A long book, characters who are both obsessive and dysfunctional at times. At times very funny, but at other times very cringe worthy. It is a well written book, but a very difficult read. I will say that it is a "literary" 1. The best sort of one, but a one none-the-less. If you enter here, expect to do a little mental work, if you plan to get anything out of it.